Death and Damnation

The progession of humanity toward its destruction/salvation is a topic often treated in Gothic novels. Questions about the agency of the individual abound; the road to eternity is paved with good/bad intentions, but those intentions may be irrelevent to the decision of the Divine. In fact, if you subscribe to the extremest form of Calvinism, as the main character of Hogg's novel does, the process is over even before you begin.

From Vathek, 23-27.

[voice of the Giaour] I require the blood of fifty children. Take them from among the most beautiful sons of thy vizirs and great men; or, neither can my thirst nor thy curiosity be satisfied . . .

The Caliph . . . resolved on the direful sacrifice . . . Having asked, with a good-natured air, which of them were blessed with the handsomest boys, every father at once asserted the pretensions of his own . . . Vathek took upon him to decide; and, with this view, commanded the boys to be brought . . . The fifty competitors were soon stripped, and presented to the admiration of the spectators the suppleness and grace of their delicate limbs . . .

Vathek, who was still standing on the edge of the chasm, called out, with all his might:--"Let my fifty little favourites approach me, separately; and let them come in the order of their success. To the first, I will give my diamond bracelet; to the second, my collar of emeralds; to the third, my aigret of rubies . . . and to the rest, each a part of my dress, even down to my slippers" . . . raising his arm as high as he was able, made each of the prizes glitter in the air; but, whilst he delivered it, with one hand, to the child, who sprung forward to receive it; he, with the other, pushed the poor innocents into the gulph . . .


Peter Hyland, "Vathek, Heaven and Hell," Vathek and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations, ed. Kenneth W. Graham, (New York: AMS Press, 1990): 145-156.

His [Vathek's] first step toward damnation comes on his symbolic destruction of innocence when he willfully, if remorsefully, throws the fifty "lovely innocents" into the Giaour's chasm. This question of the functioning of will is a central one. Throughout the novel he chooses evil, and it is made to appear that his choice is a free one; his final choice at Istakar, where the good genius offers him a last chance for mercy, is certainly an act of will:
"Whoever thou art, withhold thy useless admonitions: thou wouldst either delude me, or art thyself deceived. If what I have done be so criminal, as thou pretendest, there remains not for me a moment of grace. I have traversed a sea of blood, to acquire a power, which will make thy equals tremble: deem not that I shall retire, when in view of the port; or, that I will relinquish her, who is dearer to me than either my life, or thy mercy. Let the sun appear! let him illumine my career! it matters not where it may end."

This is an important passage, recalling the offer made by the Old Man to Marlowe's Faustus, and in it Vathek performs irrevocably the action which makes him a Faust-figure. To use Fiedler's term, he chooses to be damned, "whatever damnation is. Not to fall into error out of a passionate loss of self-control, not even to choose to sin at a risk of damnation; but to commit oneself to it with absolute certainty for 'as long as forever is.'"


Compare Vathek's Free Will to the Predestination as depicted by James Hogg:

From Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 122.

That I was a great, a transcendent sinner, I confess. But still I had hopes of forgiveness, because I never sinned from principle, but accident; and then I always tried to repent of these sins by the slump, for individually it was impossible; and though not always successful in my endeavours, I could not help that; the grace of repentance being withheld from me, I regarded myself as in no degree accountable for the failure.


Frederick S. Frank, "The Gothic Vathek: The Problem of Genre Resolved," Vathek and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations, ed. Kenneth W. Graham, (New York: AMS Press, 1990): 157-172.

Beckford's characters, like the entrapped casts of other Gothic novels, are never free, although they may delude themselves with the dream of freedom by their sensual and sadistic conduct. At issue throughout Vathek, as one pro-Gothic reader of the novel has stated it, is the "contradiction between the illusion of man's freedom and the reality of his imprisonment in a necessitarian universe."

The theme of freedom is powerfully stated through Vathek's continuous contact with a world that continuously disappoints his suprarational desire to liberate himself from all mortal restraints.


There is no liberation from the ills of life available for Robert either, as he is under the ultimate power of God.

From Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 111.

My heart quaked with terror, when I thought of being still living in a state of reprobation, subjectd to the awful issues of death, judgment, and eternal misery, by the slightest accident or casuality, and I set about the duty of prayer myself with the utmost earnestness. I prayed three times every day, and seven times on the Sabbath; but the more frequently and fervently that I prayed, I sinned still the more. About this time, and for a long period afterwards, amounting to several years, I lived in a hopeless and deplorable state of mind; for I said to myself, "If my name is not written in the book of life from all eternity, it is in vain for me to presume that either vows or prayers of mine, or those of all mankind combined, can ever procure its insertion now."

But O what a wretched state this unregenerated state is, in which every effort after righteousness only aggravates our offences!


Frederick S. Frank, "The Gothic Vathek: The Problem of Genre Resolved," Vathek and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations, ed. Kenneth W. Graham, (New York: AMS Press, 1990): 157-172.

Gothic romances like Vathek mock the very form they feed on for they "retain the structure of romance, but invert the hero's progress. The result is a linear descent: aesthetically, from the Hill of the Pied Horses to the Hall of Eblis; psychologically, from wishfulfillment to frustration; and metaphysically, from a vision of humanity as unlimited potentiality to humanity as finite actuality in an alien world." Other characters throughout the Gothic genre who decide to risk all for evil suffer the fate of Vathek in similar gruesome confinements of body and soul. In Gothic terms, the Eblis episode means a permanent condition of disunity between the self and nature, the self and society, and the self and God. At the end of the novel, we have entered the zone of ultimate cosmic discord intensified by the dreadful apprehension that the world is under the control of a demon and there is "no exit."


From The Monk, 44-441.

[voice of the Daemon] Tremble at the extent of your offences! . . . I long have marked you for my prey: I watched the movements of your heart; I saw that you were virtuous from vanity, not principle, and I seized the fit moment of seduction . . . Your lust only needed an opportunity to break forth . . . It was I who threw Matilda in your way; It was I who gave you entrance to Antonia's chamber . . .

You are mine, and Heaven itself cannot rescue you from my power . . . You are mind beyond reprieve: I burn to possess my right, and alive you quit not these mountains.


The apparition that appears in the conclusion of Otranto is awe-inspiring, but far less fear-provoking than the demons of Beckford or Lewis.

From The Castle of Otranto, 108-109.

A clap of thunder at that instant shook the castle to its foundations; the earth rocked, and the clank of more than mortal armour was heard behind. Frederic and Jerome though the last day was at hand . . . the form of Alfonso, dilated to an immense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso! said the vision: and having pronounced those words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven . . . The beholders fell prostrate on their faces, acknowledging the divine will.


Robert F. Geary, "From Providence to Terror: The Supernatural in Gothic Fantasy," The Fantastic in World Literature and the Arts: Selected Essays from the Fifth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. Donald E. Morse, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1984): 7-20.

Within the story Walpole struggles to make the supernatural elements reasonably congruent with Christian belief . . . In the final sections of Otranto, however, the supernatural begins to lose its moral aspects as it manifests itself not as providential protection of innocence but as pure, numinous wrath . . . The final numinous manifestation is one of awesome power, demanding total submission to a divine will working through "sacreligious murder." . . . Having proclaimed Theodore the rightful heir, the vision ascends heavenward, leaving Matilda to die, Theodore to brood over her amid the ruins of his inheritance (eventually in the company of Isabella), and Manfred to retire to a holy cell where he will seek to avert "the further wrath of Heaven." Though the rightful dynasty has returned, the story ends less with a providential restoration of order than with a terrifying and ruinous manifestation of numinous power . . . Later Gothic novelists would seek to end this ambiguity, whether by moving the vaguely numinous back into a providential matrix, by evaporating it into the psychological, or by releasing it altogether from lingering providential restraints to pour out unalloyed terror.


From The Monk, 441-442.

He [the Daemon] released the sufferer. headlong fell the Monk through the airy waste; The sharp point of a rock received him; and He rolled from precipice to precipice, till bruised and mangled He rested on the river's banks . . . The Sun now rose above the horizon; Its scorching beams darted full upon the head of the expiring Sinner. Myriads of insects were called forth by the warmth; They drank the blood which trickled from Ambrosio's wounds . . . The Eagles of the rock tore his flesh piecemeal, and dug out his eye-balls with their crooked beaks . . . six miserable days did the Villain languish.


Unlike the eventual hell that Ambrosio faces, Vathek is doomed to a life of perpetual suffering.

Peter Hyland, "Vathek, Heaven and Hell," Vathek and the Escape from Time: Bicentenary Revaluations, ed. Kenneth W. Graham, (New York: AMS Press, 1990): 145-156.

It is highly significant that this hell does not come after death, for the central characters do not die. Gulchenrouz's life is extended into eternal childhood; inthe same way, Carathis, Nouronihar, and Vathek are damned to the suffering of eternal guilt and isolation, "as if alone on a desert where no foot had trodden," again without death.


From Vathek, 119-120.

Their hearts immediately took fire, and they, at once, lost the most precious gift of heaven:--HOPE. These unhappy beings recoiled, with looks of the most furious distraction. Vathek beheld in the eyes of Nouronihar nothing but rage and vengeance; nor could she discern aught in his, but aversion and despair . . . all testified their horror for each other by the most ghastly convulsions, and screams that could not be smothered. All severally plunged themselves into the accursed multitude, there to wander in an eternity of unabating anguish.